Ben Purkert On Masculinity, The Ad World, and The “Train Wreck” Aspect Of His Sensational Debut Novel
Ben Purkert’s riotous debut novel The Men Can’t Be Saved explores what happens when someone who stakes their identity on their occupation suddenly loses their job. Seth is a young copywriter with a copious amount of self-regard, all too eager to tell anyone within earshot the origin story of his infamous tagline for adult diapers. When Seth becomes a victim of corporate downsizing, he scrambles to stay afloat while still clinging to the hope that he will be rehired. He secures a job at a local coffee shop and soon becomes entranced with a co-worker with a seemingly limitless access to prescription medication. Meanwhile, his former co-worker, Moon, an ad executive steeped in the frat boy lifestyle, seeks to pull Seth into his Bacchanalian exploits. Seth counters Moon’s excess with a deep dive into his spirituality, which includes a friendship with an over-eager Orthodox rabbi and a memorable Birthright trip. Critics have heaped praise on the book, with Publishers Weekly calling it “great fun” and The Washington Post singling out Purkert as “a sharply funny observer of male foibles, 20-something angst and the modern workplace.” An acutely perceptive examination of masculinity and the workplace, The Men Can’t Be Saved will be sought after by readers who have enjoyed the works of Gary Shteyngart and Sam Lipsyte.
Seth is such a fascinating character and seems like some somebody who readers will have a lot of fun discussing and analyzing. Can you talk about how you approached creating him?
Part of what is interesting to me about Seth is that he is incredibly narcissistic. He’s very self-conscious, but he’s self-conscious without having any ability to see himself. I think that is something that’s frankly not all that unique to him, on some level. I think about that meme from a couple of years ago about “men would rather do XYZ than go to therapy.” Seth is so desperately in need of that sort of reflection on himself and his own actions, but he’s unwilling to go there. For me, that is what made him such a compelling character, the kind of character that I want to spend the ten years that I spent on this book, sort of working with and examining [him]. That was the genesis of his creation as a character, what happens when you take a very driven, very obsessive person and set him at a distance from his own awareness?
He’s often oblivious to how his actions are received by those around him. What was it like processing the world of the novel through his very limited perspective?
It was fun. (laughs) Part of how we learn Seth is not through Seth himself. I recently interviewed the novelist Antoine Wilson, and he talked about when a novel is in the first person, you’re really not getting an objective account of that person’s actions. You’re getting, in effect, the PR department. They’re only telling you a very small slice of their reality, right? Everything is filtered through their eyes, it doesn’t mean that it’s objectively true. For me with my novel, it became clear that the characters who surround Seth are, on some level, the truth tellers. When his coworker Josie says something about the ad campaign that Seth created, it carries a whole lot more weight, I think, than when Seth is telling us—or really bragging to us—about his creative achievements.
One of the pleasures of reading the book is processing what’s really happening versus what’s the version Seth is presenting to the reader. How did you approach the other characters in Seth’s orbit, all of whom seem like people with equally complicated lives?
I think that’s a great compliment, because as a writer, you know who the main character is, but the supporting characters are all the main character in their own narratives. I felt responsible [to them]. Part of why I worked for so long on the book was making sure that I had done everything I could to give the supporting cast as much depth and dimension as they deserved. George Saunders talks about how in a first draft, your characters sometimes feel like cardboard cutouts. Your job through revision is to add layers and make them feel realer with each successive draft. I tried to be conscious of that. Seth is the main character, but a supporting character or foil like Moon, for example—who was probably my favorite character to write, even more so than Seth on some level—I want him to feel every bit as present on the page.
I’d love to talk about Moon, because he seems to struggle on an even greater level with some of the same issues that plague Seth, like not being self-aware. Can you talk about Moon and how you placed him in the story in contrast to Seth?
For those who maybe haven’t read the novel yet, Seth and Moon are co-workers at the agency, and both of them make a lot of bad decisions throughout the course of this book. But whereas Seth is obsessing and often plagued by the ramifications of those decisions, Moon seemingly doesn’t care. There’s just no reservation about him and his bro-iness and his frat boy behavior. That’s all fine and well and good. I know people like that. I’m sure you do, too. But I wanted to make sure that Moon wasn’t just slapstick. I think some of the lines of deeper insight in the book come from Moon, so there is something more there under the surface. Masculinity is often such a mask and we don’t get a chance to see the interior self behind men of a certain sort. I wanted to hint at the fact that there’s more here going on than almost socially, Moon allows himself to be,
Was that something that came about during the revision process in terms of how much you were going to reveal about Moon and when you were going to reveal it?
It was the revision process, but it was also just writing from the first page to the last page and discovering these characters as I went through it. One model for writing a novel—the smart model, frankly—is to map everything out and have a really crystal clear outline. The approach that I took, which is much more the E.L. Doctorow approach of you drive the car at night with only the headlights on. Eventually you’ll get somewhere, but you really have no clue where you’re going in the middle. Some of the turns that Moon’s character takes I wouldn’t have known from the first chapter, but that was part of the joy of the discovery of writing this book, sort of sitting beside the reader and saying, “Oh my God, what are they doing now?” This train wreck aspect of it was part of what kept me hooked. I don’t think the book would have held my interest as a writer for a decade if it hadn’t had those surprises.
I was sick to my stomach about some of the choices that Seth and Moon made, but I also had to keep reading to find out how they were going to get out of it. How did you balance the outrageousness of their acts with the willingness of a reader to go along for the ride?
It was important to me that it felt credible, that it feels like a work of realism. At the same time, I think folks who are desperate will go pretty far, and Seth is someone who gets laid off. When I was working as a copywriter at a branding slash advertising agency right out of college, the Great Recession hit really shortly after I started there. I personally was not laid off. I was making too little money for anyone to be interested. There was no economic incentive to lay me off, no one even knew I existed. But I did have a lot of friends who were laid off and it was a really bleak time. Someone who is invested in their work, both because they need the money to buy food, to pay rent, all those things, but also is invested in terms of their sense of self and their identity. They love their job, or at least they identify strongly by their profession. In the U.S., we do that much more so than in other cultures. “What do you do?” is often our first question when we meet one another, and that’s not often the case if you go elsewhere.
Seth does many wild, almost absurd things that you wonder, “Would someone really steal a friend’s car? Would they then sleep in that car? Would they follow an addict through their rehab process and behave like a stalker?” I don’t know. But I do know that if you are defining your life and your self-worth based on your profession, and then that all gets taken away, you’re in a state where you’re probably going to do some things that you might not have ever expected you would.
You mentioned that you worked in an ad agency and the novel is so ruthless in its depiction of the ad world. Can you talk about how your background shaped your approach to depicting Seth’s work?
I started working at the agency, as I mentioned, not long before the recession. When I took the job as a tagline copywriter, initially none of my friends really knew what that meant. It didn’t have any social capital or cache at all, and then “Mad Men” debuted. That really changed everything because suddenly Don Draper became this icon for the industry, for better or worse. In my experience, the branding, marketing, and advertising world likes to tell stories and is really good at telling stories. One of the stories that it tells about itself is that it’s a really progressive industry. With a show like “Mad Men,” we had a glimpse of what that world was like back in the 1960s. A lot of my friends and my colleagues at the agency, we would watch it and we would say that shit really hasn’t changed that much. The way that we work, the technology that we use, is obviously radically different, but in terms of the behavior, in terms of the misogyny, in terms of the toxicity, those things felt to us sort of unchanged. Once I understood that and internalized that, that was the moment in which I wanted to write this book, or at least explore what I saw as a potential hypocrisy.
In many ways, I loved working in the agency world. I especially loved working with designers. I miss that because writing can be so solitary. There was something so joyful and collaborative about working with a brilliant graphic designer. They edit the art based on what you write and then you edit the words based on what they design. That’s a really special relationship, I miss that a lot. But at the end of the day, I knew that everything that we did was in service of selling more product, whatever that product was. I had a pretty clear sense that if I could do this creative writing thing full time, whatever that looked like, that that was what I was going to be pursuing.
You’re a poet and you published your collection For The Love Of Endings a few years ago. I was curious about how writing poetry affected how you write your novels?
I think I write them slower. (laughs) I’m a slower novelist as a consequence, probably both for better and worse. There are some amazing novelists, as you know, who put out a novel every year, something like that. When I think about that, and what that would entail on the process side, I just throw up my hands. I’m trained as a poet, not as a fiction writer, so I really labor over the music, over the phrase. Even writing on the page, I became a little obsessive about line breaks, which is absurd, right? Ultimately, the publisher just flows in the text and your paragraphs, as you write them on your laptop, are not going to bear any resemblance to what they look like in the book. I know that intellectually, but it still mattered to me how the words appeared on my page. I think that’s just because when you’re trained as a poet, you appreciate that language has shape and has a kind of body. I haven’t been able to kick that. Maybe I’ll grow out of it or maybe it’s just a symptom of my education/OCD bearing itself out.
The other aspect of this is that, as a poet, I care a lot about language. This novel is about many things, I hope. It’s about masculinity, it’s about addiction. It’s about religion and Judaism. It’s about a need to have an identity and a sense of self-worth. But I think it’s also about language. Looking specifically at taglines was a way for me to think about when language says what it doesn’t really mean, or when there’s an absence of human voice behind the words. So, on some level, the whole novel is about poetry, or at least asking questions that are not that far afield from that.
You also edited Back Draft, Guernica’s interview series with writers about their revision process. Did that experience have any influence to your own personal writing style?
It had a huge influence. On some level, the idea for Back Draft came out of my own very selfish necessity. I wrote the draft for this novel really quickly, I want to say in like, two or three months. But then I had no idea what to do with it. It’s fun to go down the roller coaster without thinking, but at some point you need to polish and revise. I really felt the lack of my fiction training when it came to revising this thing. So I thought to myself, “How do writers take objectively what is a sort of mediocre first draft and turn it into something more?” The only way I could think to research that was just to talk to writers I admired and get a sense of how did they revise. Back Draft was a real education and a privilege in terms of getting close to some of my contemporary heroes, and getting a sense of their own practice so that I could incorporate some of those practices into my own work.
Finally, what role has the library played in your life?
Huge. I almost get emotional thinking about it because there are so few places in our society where you as a citizen are welcome and are given a comfortable place to sit, a comfortable place to think, and are not asked to buy anything. That is so precious and so rare. To say nothing about the access to the literary resources and the research opportunities that you can do in a library. Just to have access to that peace and silence, I think, is such a precious thing. A good percentage of this novel was written at public libraries, as well as university libraries. I can’t express enough my admiration and appreciation for what librarians do and for the role that libraries serve. I only hope that continues because I know that in many ways, libraries are under threat on a variety of fronts. It goes without saying that it would be a terrific loss. I think all writers, all readers, all citizens have an obligation to speak out about why these are such vital institutions, and why they’re worth investing in on a deeper level.